Frustrated Democrats amp up pressure on Biden over global vaccinations
Congressional Democrats are increasing pressure on the Biden administration to step up its efforts to vaccinate the world, arguing more needs to be done to prevent a new COVID-19 variant from emerging to threaten the United States after omicron.
A group of more than 80 Democratic lawmakers is pushing for $17 billion to support global vaccinations in a coming government funding package, but there is no certainty yet on what will be provided.
The Biden administration has touted its pledge of 1.2 billion doses for other countries, of which 400 million have been delivered so far, as more than any other country in the world has provided.
But some Democratic lawmakers say simply donating doses is not enough, given that many poor countries still have extremely low vaccination rates.
“The truth is we just have to do more,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who said she had talked “extensively” with the administration about her push.
“It’s not enough to say we’re doing more than any other country, which may be true, but the reality is just from a purely ‘What benefits us?’ perspective, if we don’t help to stem COVID in these other countries, we’re not going to be able to do anything here,” she added.
Only 9 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to a tracker from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Experts warn that low vaccination rates abroad provide conditions for new variants to form and eventually threaten the United States. While the spike caused by the omicron variant is now declining, leading to an improving situation in the U.S., a new variant that evades vaccines or causes more severe disease could upend the progress.
While global vaccine supply has increased from the early days, another challenge is the infrastructure to get shots into arms. Democrats say the $17 billion could help fund this process, along with treatments and tests for other countries.
Lawmakers say they are hopeful that more funding will make it into the coming package, which faces a March 11 deadline, but they are frustrated that major vaccine disparities persist after months of pressure.
“I’ve been frustrated for a year,” said Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.), one of the leaders of the funding push.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said he doesn’t “feel a sense of urgency” from the Biden administration on the issue, though he said he thinks there will be at least “something” in the coming funding bill for global vaccinations.
“We’ve got to get going real fast if we’re [to have] any chance of preventing the next variant from coming over,” he said.
Roughly $10 billion in funding for global COVID-19 needs has been under discussion, sources told The Hill, but there’s no clarity yet.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said his understanding is that now that there has been progress on the top-line numbers for a government funding deal, the White House will be putting forward a request with a “generous” number for global COVID-19 needs.
In addition to funding, the Progressive Caucus is calling on the Biden administration to take steps to further boost manufacturing capacity for vaccines, as well as to force vaccine makers to share their know-how with lower-income countries to allow more manufacturing abroad.
“I think they have made a serious effort and they deserve credit for that, but I think we can do more,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told The Hill when asked about the Biden administration’s efforts on global vaccinations. “The United States is not going to be safe until the whole world is safe.”
Asked last week if the administration supports the push from congressional Democrats for $17 billion for global vaccinations, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients did not answer directly.
“We will be working with Congress as needed to make sure we have the funding to continue to fight this virus,” he said.
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations health subcommittee, said he is open to more funding for global vaccinations, though it has not been a source of “major discussion” so far.
“I think we’ve always thought we eventually needed to include as much help to countries that couldn’t help themselves as we could,” he said.
Asked about her talks with the administration, Jayapal noted that officials want other countries to step up as well but said that should not be an impediment for the U.S. to act with greater urgency.
“I think they do feel like they want to do as much as they can,” she said. “They don’t want the United States to be the only ones to shoulder the burden, I understand that. But this is both a moral issue [and] from a purely practical perspective, it’s the right thing to do also.”
“What we’ve done is just not sufficient to be able to say ‘Alright, we’ve made a real difference in stemming COVID,’” she said.
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